By Simon Darnell
What Arron Asham did was ‘classless.’ This is according to no less an authority than Arron Asham. After knocking out Jay Beagle with a vicious (but fairly standard) haymaker in an NHL fight on Thursday, Asham issued an immediate mea culpa after the game. His apology made reference to the way that he added insult to Beagle’s injury in the form of a sleeping gesture made on the way to the penalty box. Not surprisingly, the story blew up, coming fresh as it did on the heels of Don Cherry’s recent controversial defense of fighting, the ongoing ‘efforts’ of the NHL to curtail headshots, and Sidney Crosby’s ongoing efforts ever to play again.
Everyone involved, or even just watching, wishes Beagle a speedy recovery. But not enough is being made of the journey through contradictions and illogic that Asham went on in a manner of hours during and after the game. Let’s recap.
First, he did his ‘job’ – that is, he used a fight to deter further violence against his teammates and, in his own words, ‘to get my bench going’ – and he followed this up by celebrating the successful execution of the task that is his stead while the crowd went wild. Then he apparently realized (and remarkably quickly if you were following the overall narrative in real time) that in the current culture of NHL hockey, ‘celebrating’ the act of concussing another player is bad PR, and so he offered himself up to a kangaroo court of hockey media so that we good folks would know that this is not the kind of person he is.
And there’s the rub. Yes, the apology was for the injury but it was mostly for the insensitive gesture that showed up Beagle while he lay passed out on the ice. (By the way, how does Nick Kypreos feel when he sees that kind of thing?). So the apology was Asham’s way of saying that he is NOT the kind of person that does that.
Yet, apparently he IS the kind of person that beats the crap out of others for his purposes and those of his teammates.
The inconsistency is so obvious that it can almost get lost, what with grown men bleeding from their ears. Or, put another way, it’s hard to see the bare knuckles for the goons. (Awkward metaphors? Sure, but read on). Fighting seems to be fine, this narrative says, as long as said fights do not lead to injury or, worse yet, embarrass or emasculate the loser.
What kind of fight would be OK, then? And how do commentators like Aaron Ward reconcile their ‘respect’ for players like Asham, players who do the job that no one else wants, but then – and please excuse the hockey colloquialism – proceed to throw these players under the bus because they buy in to the job.
Also notable is that the issue that Asham took on in his apology – seriously, did someone pull him aside after the game? ‘Dude, this thing is gonna blow up. You gotta get out ahead of it.’ – is qualitatively different than the discussion of head shots, suspensions and enforcer culture that has been so visceral and confrontational in recent weeks. This wasn’t about Asham’s psychological health, or even really about Beagle’s physical health as far as I can tell. It wasn’t about retired enforcers like Chris Nilan and Stu Grimson defending the nobility of the role. It was the fact that Asham’s quality and effectiveness as a fighter undercut (or was it a jab?) all of the efforts that the NHL has made and is still making to try and project an image of a civilized and respectable league and sport. I almost hate to bring it up but it’s not unlike Todd Bertuzzi’s destruction of Steve Moore in that it exposed the raw underbelly of NHL vengeance and violence for all to see. And the NHL can ill afford that right now.
It may seem strange, but I feel for Arron Asham most of all. What was, or is, he supposed to do exactly? His raison d’etre is pugilism. He has more than 80 fights recorded by the loving souls who keep track of such things. And he seems to be really good at it. If the issue is that he shouldn’t beat people up as a way to motivate the crowd and his team, then the move should be to ban fighting. Instead, we had the hockey equivalent of a public flogging in response to the hockey equivalent of a Roman Circus.
So please spare us the spectacle of hockey fighters who now have to offer public confessions for being hockey fighters. It’s not fair to Jay Beagle. And it does an even bigger disservice to Arron Asham because it makes hockey fights impossible even as they remain firmly part of the game.